The incident happened on August 26, 1944, two days after a Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber of the United States Army Air Forces was shot down by heavy anti-aircraft fire over Hanover. Nine crew members of the aircraft parachuted to the ground, where they were captured and held by German Luftwaffe personnel. Unable to transfer the downed aircrewmen to a prisoner-of-war camp due to the train tracks being heavily damaged by bombing the night before, the Americans were forced to march through the devastated town of Rüsselsheim to catch another train. The townspeople, already angered by damage caused to their town by an RAF bombing raid the previous night on the Opel automobile factory, which was manufacturing airplane parts during the war, started attacking the unarmed crew members with rocks, hammers, sticks, and shovels, which resulted in the deaths of six of their number.
During World War II, Rüsselsheim, an industrial town that housed many key targets, including the Opel plant, was bombed several times by the Royal Air Force (RAF). The RAF followed a policy of "area bombing" of cities at night while the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) relied on "precision bombing" by day.
On the afternoon of August 24, 1944, an American B-24 bomber named Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma'am, commanded by 2nd Lt. Norman J. Rogers Jr, was shot down while taking part in an attack on an airfield in Hanover and the crew parachuted down near Hutterup. One lookout alerted both the local fire brigade and the military detachment at the nearby airfield and patrols were dispatched to find the downed Americans. One of the nine airmen, Staff Sgt. Forrest W. Brininstool, had serious flak injuries to his abdomen. After landing on the farm, he was given first aid by an elderly couple and in return, Brininstool gave them his silk parachute, a valuable item for peasants. Within a few hours, most of the crew were captured by German personnel and taken into an interrogation room in the town hall in Greven. After that, most of the crew members, including Rogers, were taken to an air base near the town where they slept for the night. Brininstool was taken to a medical clinic where he was operated on for shrapnel wounds, then was moved to a hospital in Münster to undergo a second operation.
The next morning, Brininstool still remained behind in the hospital while the others were loaded onto a train for a trip south to the Dulag Luft in Oberursel, north of Frankfurt. At every stop along the way, after German civilians noticed the Americans on the train, crowds would form at the windows, shouting in anger at the "terror fliers" and shaking their fists, spitting on the windows.
On the night of August 25, the RAF sent 116 Avro Lancasters to Rüsselsheim in order to attack the Opel factory on a bombing mission, dropping 674 2,000-lb bombs and more than 400,000 incendiaries on the city, destroying the plant and damaging the railtracks, more by far than any previous air raid on Rüsselsheim in World War II. Towards the end of the bombing raid, a German air raid warden, Joseph Hartgens, mobilized residents in Russelsheim to put out the fires in their homes.
The death march
In the morning of August 26, most of the American bomber crewmembers were still proceeding to their original destination. However, the train line was heavily damaged by the Royal Air Force in the previous night so the airmen were taken off the train and forced to walk to Rüsselsheim to catch another train. The prisoners were escorted by two German soldiers. As the Americans marched through Rüsselsheim, the townspeople, assuming the fliers were Canadians who had taken part in the previous night's raid, quickly formed and immediately turned into an uncontrollable angry mob.
Two women, Margarete Witzler and Käthe Reinhardt, shouted out, "There are the terror flyers. Tear them to pieces! Beat them to death! They have destroyed our houses!" One of the crew members replied back in German, "It wasn't us! We didn't bomb Rüsselsheim!" Nevertheless, one woman threw a brick at the crew and that precipitated a riot during which the townspeople attacked the prisoners with rocks, hammers, sticks, and shovels. Three Opel workers arrived with iron bars and starting beating the men to death to the cries of the crowd.
The mob was joined by air raid warden Josef Hartgen, who was armed with a pistol. The German soldiers who guarded the crew-members made no attempt to prevent the beatings. After the airmen collapsed from the beatings, Hartgen lined them up in the curb and shot six in the head, but ran out of ammunition, leaving two of the airmen, William M. Adams and Sidney Eugene Brown, alive. The mob then put the airmen on a cart and took them to a cemetery. Those who moaned were further beaten.
During the attack, an air raid siren sounded and the mob ran for cover. Adams and Brown managed to crawl from the bloody cart and fled toward the Rhine River, avoiding capture for four days. However, they were discovered by a policeman and taken to their original destination, the camp in Oberursel where they remained until after the war in Europe ended.
After the war in Europe ended in 1945, the killings came to light when Rüsselsheim was under occupation by the U.S. Army and the bodies were located on 28 June 1945. In the first war trials of Germany prior to the Nuremberg trials, eleven residents of Rüsselsheim, including Joseph Hartgen, were put on trial in late July 1945 in Darmstadt, a town devastated by a British night attack the previous September that had killed 8,500 residents and left 70,000 homeless.
The defense argued that they had been incited to commit the crime by Goebbels' propaganda, that encouraged the German people to take reprisals against downed Allied airmen; and that the defendants were not to bear the guilt for their actions. Lt. Col. Leon Jaworski, who would achieve notoriety three decades later as the special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, insisted on the individual responsibility of the defendants for the murder, saying that, "They were all grown men and women. If they are called on to commit the murder and they do, they are just as responsible as any other murderers."
The acts of violence against the surrendered Americans by residents of Rüsselsheim constituted a violation of the laws of war. In Article 2 of the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Prisoners of War, it was provided that: "Prisoners of war are in the power of the hostile Power, but not of the individuals or corps who have captured them. They must at all times be humanely treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence, insults, and public curiosity. Measures of reprisal against them are prohibited." Also, Article 23 of the 1907 Hague Convention IV - The Laws and Customs of War on Land states that: "In addition to the prohibitions provided by special Conventions, it is especially forbidden....(c) To kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion". Germany was a signatory to both conventions. It was specified that German civilians were bound to observe the laws of war since international law was binding upon belligerents under all circumstances and conditions.
The trial lasted six days, with eyewitness testimony to the killings by Joseph Hartgen; and accounts of the bludgeoning of the airmen.
On August 2, Joseph Hartgen, Johannes Siepel, Phillip Gutlich, Friedrich Wust, Johannes Opper, Margarete Witzler, and Käthe Reinhardt were found guilty and sentenced to death. One person was acquitted by the Commission while the remainder of the defendants were given varying prison terms. The judge, however, later committed Witzler and Reinhardt to 30 years in prison when Jean Witzler, Margarete's husband and Käthe Reinhardt's brother-in-law, pointed out that the only offenses the two women committed against the pilots was screaming. On November 10, 1945, Hartgen and the four others were hanged at the prison in Bruchsal. A sixth, a German soldier, was convicted and executed in 1946.
- Igor Primoratz (June 2, 2011). Churchill's War Lab: Codebreakers, Scientists, and the Mavericks Churchill Led to Victory. Overlook Hardcover. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- Gregory A. Freeman (May 24, 2011). The Last Mission of the Wham Bam Boys: Courage, Tragedy, and Justice in World War II. Palgrave Macmillan; 1 edition. ISBN 0-2301-0854-7. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- Lynn Matison Geddie & Reid Geddie (May 7, 2010). America's Soldiers. AuthorHouse. p. 11. ISBN 1-4389-8901-6. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- Reinhold Billstein; Anita Kugler; Nicholas Levis & Karola Fings (October 4, 2004). Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors, and Forced Labor in Germany During the Second World War. Berghahn Books; 1st Pbk. Ed edition. ISBN 1-8454-5013-2. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- Roger Boyes (August 27, 2004). "German town admits lynching of US airmen". The Times. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- Kevin Dougherty (August 25, 2004). "Memorial Honors Victims of WWII Mob". Stars and Stripes. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- Jorg Friedrich (April 14, 2008). The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940 1945. Columbia University Press. p. 433. ISBN 0-2311-3381-2. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- James J. Weingartner (March 21, 2011). Americans, Germans, and War Crimes Justice: Law, Memory, and "The Good War". Praeger; 1 edition. p. 23. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
- "CONVENTION OF JULY 27, 1929, RELATIVE TO THE TREATMENT OF PRISONERS OF WAR". Avalon.law.yale.edu. Retrieved May 28, 2013.
- "Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land. The Hague, 18 October 1907". International Committee of the Red Cross. Retrieved May 28, 2013.
- Review of the Staff Judge Advocate (PDF), 23 August 1945, retrieved 30 May 2013
- "Fliers' Slayers Hanged in Reich". The Miami News. November 10, 1945. Retrieved May 28, 2013.
- Kevin Dougherty (November 25, 2004). "Memorial Honors Victims of WWII Mob". Stars and Stripes. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
August Nigro, Wolfsangel: A German City on Trial: 1945-48. Washington, D. C., Brassey's, 2000.